Press release

Simple blood test could detect life-threatening aortic tears

Published on 7 June 2021

A simple blood test developed by researchers from the University of Dundee could help doctors spot deadly damage to the aorta, the body’s largest blood vessel.

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A simple blood test developed by researchers from the University of Dundee could help doctors spot deadly damage to the aorta, the body’s largest blood vessel.

Acute aortic syndrome (AAS) occurs when the wall of the aorta tears and blood begins to flow between the layers of the blood vessel wall. Patients with AAS need immediate treatment – in the most severe cases emergency surgery – to prevent the artery from rupturing and the patient potentially dying. However, diagnosing the disease in time is often difficult as symptoms, such as chest pain, can be attributed to other, commoner conditions.

Now, researchers at the Universities of Dundee and Edinburgh have found that testing for a molecule called desmosine may speed up diagnosis of this deadly disease, which affects 3000 people in the UK every year.

Researchers compared blood concentrations of desmosine in 53 patients know to have AAS and 106 people without the disease. They found that those suffering from AAS had almost double the concentration of desmosine in their blood. Desmosine levels were also associated with aortic growth.

The team believe that desmosine is released into the blood when the tissues within the wall of the aorta break down, signalling that the aorta has been damaged and is at risk of expanding or bursting. They now hope to use these findings to explore whether a simple blood test at Dundee could speed up the diagnosis of AAS in hospital.

The research, funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), was presented at the British Cardiovascular Society conference.

Dr Anna-Maria Choy, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Dundee’s School of Medicine, said, “Time is absolutely vital when the aorta develops a tear and so anything that enables clinicians to make a rapid diagnosis and begin treatment right away will undoubtedly save lives.

“Desmosine is almost the holy grail in this regard because until now we do not have reliable blood tests for aortic tears. This is why my colleague Dr Jeffrey Huang sought to develop a simple test that would allow for quick diagnosis. Using his technology, we have been able to work with collaborators in Edinburgh to prove that desmosine is a biomarker of AAS.

“The symptoms that AAS patients typically present with could have been caused by a number of conditions, many of them benign, so it is essential we can identify those at serious risk from this dangerous disease. If our test is shown to enable swift diagnosis in larger trials, then this will be practise-changing and life-saving."

Professor James Leiper, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said, “This research shows that high blood levels of desmosine could act as a molecular warning sign, flagging that the aorta is damaged and that a patient needs immediate treatment.

“If the findings of the current work are replicated in larger studies, this tiny molecule could one day form the basis of a much-needed hospital test to detect AAS, speeding up treatments and ultimately saving lives.”

Notes to editors

About the British Heart Foundation

With donations from the public, the BHF funds groundbreaking research that will get us closer than ever to a world free from the fear of heart and circulatory diseases. A world where broken hearts are mended, where millions more people survive a heart attack, where the number of people dying from or disabled by a stroke is slashed in half. A world where people affected by heart and circulatory diseases get the support they need. And a world of cures and treatments we can’t even imagine today. We are backing the best ideas, the brightest minds and the biggest ambitions - because that’s how we’ll beat heartbreak forever. Find out more at  


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Research